Often I hear people ask “where is the place of the subject in object-oriented ontology”? The first thing to note is that object-oriented ontology (OOO) is not one particular ontology. Rather, OOO denotes a genus with many different species, rather than a particular position. In this regard, OOO is more a term like “empiricism”, “rationalism”, or “idealism”, rather than “Whiteheadian”, “Cartesian”, “Deleuzian”, “Derridean”. Just as there were debates between the various rationalists as we can see in the case of Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz who vehemently disagreed with one another, there are all sorts of different versions of OOO. The sole criteria for being an object-oriented ontologist lies in holding that the universe is composed of units. However, different object-oriented ontologists theorize those units differently. Some argue that units are completely withdrawn from all relations (Harman). Others argue that units only exist in relation to one another (Whitehead, Bennett). Some argue that units have a fixed and withdrawn essence (Harman, Morton). Others argue that units are processes and events and that they only exist and “have” an identity through continuing these operations or processes (me, Whitehead, Deleuze). Some argue that units are characterized by absolute actuality (Harman, Whitehead), others argue that every unit is split between potentiality, power, or capacity on the one hand, and actuality on the other hand (me, Deleuze, Bhaskar, DeLanda, Aristotle, etc). I could go on, but you get the idea. There isn’t one OOO, so there isn’t going to be an “OOO take” on the subject.
Consequently, in writing about OOO and the subject, I can only speak for myself. I think the first thing to get is that for OOO, the term “object” is not something opposed to a subject. The language here is misleading, which is why some of us try to use terms other than “object”, such as “unit”, “machine”, “actual occasion”, “actant”, and so on. The problem with the term “object” is that the philosophical tradition tends to think of object as that which a subject posits, regards, or intends. OOO uses the term “object” in a sense more analogous to thing, than as the correlate of an egos intentions. “Object” just names anything that exists. Being, OOO theories contend, consist of objects or units, regardless of whether any sentient being experiences them or intends them. These objects, of course, differ amongst themselves. Atoms are different than plants. Animals are different than rocks. Humans are different than armies. Armies are different than corporations and hurricanes. There are lots of different types of objects and one fruitful path of object-oriented inquiry would consist in the investigation of the unique structures of these different types of objects. Moreover, we see just how broadly the term “unit” is used here. On the one hand, there are units at a variety of different levels of scale from the smallest fermion up to entire nations, and there are objects that exist within other objects. Armies can’t exist without people and atoms, but nonetheless, armies are unique units that have their own dynamics. The case is no different than that of the relation between a cell and your liver. Your liver can’t exist without the cells that compose it, but nonetheless your liver is a unique unit because it has its own ways of operating, its own “rules” that govern it, that can’t be found at the level of individual cells. In the context of this discussion, however, the important thing to note is that, for OOO, subject is a type of object.
The term “subject” is pretty nebulous. Which type of subject are we talking about? Are we talking about the subject of phenomenology as the seat of intentionality, experience, agency, and intuition? Nothing about OOO requires anyone to banish this subject or phenomenological methodology because humans are among the sorts of objects that we find populating being. Engage in phenomenological analysis to your heart’s content; just recognize that there are other objects that experience the world differently such as cats, octopi, corporations, and so on (I believe that phenomenology would be immeasurably enriched through comparative phenomenology, engaging in the analysis of people with “disabilities”, investigations of how other animals are phenomenologically open to the world, investigations of how entities like corporations, nations, institutions, political parties, armies, and so on encounter the world, and so on).
Are we talking about the Lacanian subject? The Lacanian subject is quite different from the phenomenological subject. Where the phenomenological subject is a seat of agency and experience, the Lacanian subject is experienced as that which is experienced as subverting our agency and experience (through bungled actions, symptoms, slips of the tongue, dreams, etc). Where the phenomenological subject says “I” and “me”, the Lacanian subject always seems alien to our sense of self. As Lacan likes to say, “I think where I am not and I am not where I think”. By this he means that our thought takes place not in our sense of conscious deliberation, but in an unconscious “elsewhere” that I can never fully identify with or assume. Where the phenomenological subject experiences itself as being in immediate identity with itself (at least in its Husserlian articulation), the Lacanian subject can only be detected in its traces— those traces being the formations of the unconscious –and is never present before us. Again, it just doesn’t have a dimension of “me-ness” to it. Where the phenomenological subject seems to have some substantial content to it, the Lacanian subject is quite literally a void or emptiness. It’s a sort of empty point, a mobile empty space, that language can never fill. Symptoms are perpetual (failed) attempts to fill that a priori hole. In this regard, the Lacanian subject is the ruin of every identity or attempt to ultimately say what we are. This isn’t as bleak as it sounds, as it also entails that no one is ever fully determined by power or conditioning.
Within my own work, I basically embrace Lacan’s theory of the subject and how the subject is formed through operations alienation and separation without reservation. I basically think subject, in Lacan’s sense, is what comes into “being” when one type of system, biological human beings, encounters and is alienated in another type of system, the system of language. In the language of autopoietic theory, subject names what happens when biological human beings are structurally coupled to the system of language. As Lacan argued, language introduces something into the world that wasn’t there before for the biological human being: constitutive absence. Constitutive absence is not the absence of this or that thing, such as being out of coffee in the morning, but is a sort of a priori or transcendental absence. It is the “condition for the possibility” of being able to refer to things in their absent, for thinking of imaginary things, for desiring in the Lacanian sense (not the Deleuzian sense), for it to be possible to experience things as missing, and so on. Most importantly, it is an absence that can never be filled. Consider the sliding puzzle game to the left above. Notice the empty square? That empty square allows the substantial squares to be moved about and combined in a variety of different ways, creating a variety of different patterns. However, the square itself will never be filled. It will always be empty no matter how much we slide the other squares about. The various combinations of squares and the patterns they create can be thought as formations of the unconscious. As the mobile and empty square moves about, it creates different patterns or formations. The empty square, by contrast, can be thought as subject. This is how it is within the Lacanian framework. Subject, transcendental absence, is nothing substantial, nor it is an agency that you are directing like a little homunculus. Rather, it is that which is perpetually shifting about in the system of language, creating all sorts of nutty formations. This phenomenon takes place, Lacan argues, because the biological human being gets alienated in language.
An important point here would then be that not every human being has a subject (my grammatical barbarism is intentional here because, again, you are not subject, but rather subject is something in you). For example, it’s unlikely that feral children have a subject in them for the simple reason that they aren’t alienated in language at the appropriate developmental point. As a consequence, we can speculate that they never form this transcendental or a priori absence. Likewise, Lacan seems to suggest that psychotics aren’t subjects because the paternal signifier isn’t operative in their unconscious and that paternal signifier, the name-of-the-father, is what institutes the first absence in the psychic economy of subjects, establishing the condition for the possibility of metaphorical substitutions that are part and parcel of subject as process (formations of the unconscious are basically metaphorical substitutions or attempts to name this primordial absence). In short, subject is something that only occurs under very specific conditions, involving a particular type of structural coupling.
The point is that OOO doesn’t require one to sacrifice things like the Lacanian subject (the same could be said of the Badiousian subject, which is yet a third type of subject). I continue to use Lacanian theory, practice, and categories all the time. Following the work of Adrian Johnston and Catherine Malabou, I do temper my understanding of Lacan somewhat by insisting that we need to make more room for biology and neurology than he did, but that doesn’t involve somehow abandoning the subject. That just means that it’s important to recognize that 1) if Lacanian/psychoanalytic theory is to be legitimate, it needs to be consistent with a naturalistic/materialist framework, and 2) that not all formations of mind can be explained in Lacanian terms (I think there are instances of organic mental illnesses). At most, situating Lacanian theory within an OOO framework might remind us that Lacanian categories are not appropriate to all phenomena of being we might discuss and analyze. Contrary to Zizek, for example, I don’t think a lot of Lacanian categories transfer well to discussions of larger scale social collectives; these are, after all, categories designed to what we encounter in the clinic in the case of analysands. In these other instances, we might very well need other categories. Sorting out these sorts of issues is another commendable project for object-oriented thought. What is rejected is any position that treats subject as ground of everything else or all beings as organized around subject. Subject is a being deeply important to us, but is also ontologically a being among other beings.